A smile came to my face at the suggestion of that celebrated adventuress and mysterious impostress who had figured in the annals of Washington—a fair Italian, so the rumor ran, who had come to this country to set up a claim, upon our credulity at least, as to being the descendant of none less than Amerigo Vespucci himself! This supposititious Italian had indeed gone so far as to secure the introduction of a bill in Congress granting to her certain Lands. The fate of that bill even then hung in the balance. I had no reason to put anything beyond the audacity of this woman with whom I spoke! My smile was simply that which marked the eventual voting down of this once celebrated measure, as merry and as bold a jest as ever was offered the credulity of a nation—one conceivable only in the mad and bitter wit of Helena von Ritz!
“Yes, Madam,” I said, “I have heard of ‘America Vespucci.’ I presume that you are now about to repeat that you are she!”
She nodded, the mischievous enjoyment of her colossal jest showing in her eyes, in spite of all. “Yes,” said she, “among other things, I have been ‘America Vespucci’! There seemed little to do here in intrigue, and that was my first endeavor to amuse myself. Then I found other employment. England needed a skilful secret agent. Why should I be faithful to England? At least, why should I not also enjoy intrigue with yonder government of Mexico at the same time? There came also Mr. Van Zandt of this Republic of Texas. Yes, it is true, I have seen some sport here in Washington! But all the time as I played in my own little game—with no one to enjoy it save myself—I saw myself begin to lose. This country—this great splendid country of savages—began to take me by the hands, began to look me in the eyes, and to ask me, ’Helena von Ritz, what are you? What might you have been?’
“So now,” she concluded, “you asked me, asked me what I was, and I have told you. I ask you myself, what am I, what am I to be; and I say, I am unclean. But, being as I am, I have done what I have done. It was for a principle—or it was—for you! I do not know.”
“There are those who can be nothing else but clean,” I broke out. “I shall not endure to hear you speak thus of yourself. You—you, what have you not done for us? Was not your mother clean in her heart? Sins such as you mention were never those of scarlet. If you have sinned, your sins are white as snow. I at least am confessor enough to tell you that.”
“Ah, my confessor!” She reached out her hands to me, her eyes swimming wet. Then she pushed me back suddenly, beating with her little hands upon my breast as though I were an enemy. “Do not!” she said. “Go!”
My eye caught sight of the great key, Pakenham’s key, lying there on the table. Maddened, I caught it up, and, with a quick wrench of my naked hands, broke it in two, and threw the halves on the floor to join the torn scroll of England’s pledge.